Microsoft has a new app out. It’s called Mimicker and, at first glance, it looks silly: It’s an Android-only alarm clock that requires you perform tricks, such as smiling into the camera or pointing the phone at a random object around the house, to switch it off. Don’t expect it to dominate the app store charts.
However, apps like Mimicker are part of a bigger plan by Microsoft to lure the best and the brightest into the company to work on a hot new trend: artificial intelligence.
While the world sees a goofy alarm clock, anyone who works in artificial intelligence understands what the app really is: an example of how a computer can learn to understand the world around it.
“Mimicker Alarm was built to showcase the power and flexibility of Microsoft Project Oxford, a platform of artificial intelligence APIs,” the app description reads, highlighting the true purpose of the free Android app.
Microsoft has been releasing a steady stream of these kind of apps, all of which are built by Microsoft Garage, an “outlet for experimental projects.”
Here are a few of the apps:
- Arrow: A “skin” for Android that “learns from you,” according to the description. “The more you use it, the better it gets.”
- MyMoustache.net: A silly tool that detects, and measures, the size of moustaches. According to Microsoft, “MyMoustache.net is the latest machine learning-powered game built using Microsoft Project Oxford Face API.”
- AutoTag: An app that finds, and tags, your friends on Facebook using AI.
- Photo Story: The app collects images and, using computer intelligence, can create a story.
- Torque: According to the app description the app is “powered by Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence technologies” and lets the user “quickly shake your Android phone to voice search the web,” among other things.
Behind these fun apps, Microsoft is pursuing a more serious mission: To get the attention of people who are working on artificial intelligence, people whom it will need to recruit.
According to LinkedIn, Microsoft is advertising a number of roles related to artificial intelligence and machine learning in the US and UK. One description for a role in the US asks for a candidate who is “interested in designing and implementing machine learning algorithms that get used by millions of users.”
“Microsoft is a pretty serious business with clearly a lot going on in the AI and machine learning space,” said Azeem Azhar, an AI expert, in an email to Business Insider. As examples, Azhar cited Cortana and Xiaoice, a Chinese-based AI experiment which, according to Microsoft, some users have fallen in love with.
“On the research side, a Microsoft team recently blew away the competition in Imagenet, the global machine vision contest,” he said. The team did this by “applying a very extensive deep-learning network” to the problem, he said.
“[Microsoft’s] wide consumer distribution through operating systems and web properties affords lots of opportunity to make a significant difference,” he added.
Microsoft Research, the research-focused arm of the company that employs around 1,000 people globally, published its list of predictions for 2016 and more than one talked about AI. “In the future, computers will see, hear, speak, and even understand,” said Patrice Simard, an engineer and deputy managing director at Microsoft Research, in an interview with Fortune about AI. “Intelligent machines will form the backbone of what we call the invisible revolution: technologies interacting so seamlessly they become invisible.”
Microsoft has been building artificial intelligence into a number of its current, big-name apps, too. Office Delve, bundled with Office 2016, uses machine learning to surface the information — emails, contacts, or calendar events — that are important right now, for example.
Cortana, the virtual assistant, is arguably Microsoft’s leading AI and machine learning experiment and is being featured prominently in Windows 10, which now has over 200 million users.
Microsoft has described Cortana as “the smartest AI in the universe” before touting its human-like credentials. “Cortana very literally thinks like a person, but she does it at a tremendously faster speed,” said Frank O’Connor, franchise development director at 343 Industries, which makes “Halo.”
For Microsoft — which lost some of its mojo in the past decade — the fact that these big, vibrant, somewhat goofy AI apps might get the attention of the professional AI community dovetails extremely neatly with its need to make AI scientists aware of how powerful the technology behind them is.